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Breaking the Fourth Wall: Direct Address in the Cinema

May 31, 2012

‘You lookin’ at me? If you’re a character in a film, you shouldn’t be. You’re supposed to be unaware that you’re participating in a work of fiction’. Guardian Clip Joint.

‘Alone, I believe, in the history of cinema, Chaplin knew how to make systematic use of a gesture condemned by all of cinema’s rulebooks.’ André Bazin ([1957]1999: 345)

‘It is not that these characters are oblivious to the camera. There is no camera in their world.’ VF Perkins (2005: 24)

Preamble

This blog forms part of a much wider research project on direct address or ‘breaking the fourth wall’. To be precise about what this means, ‘direct address’ refers to moments when movie characters appear to acknowledge our presence as spectators; they seem to look ‘at’ or talk ‘to’ us. I am not talking about other kinds of looks at the camera (for example, those embedded within ‘first-person’ point of view shots [POV]) but the very specific kind of ‘impossible’ look direct address represents. (It is clearly materially impossible because, unlike in the theatre, the spectator is not present to the film performer.) The following thus provides only a snapshot of much wider work on the project, pursued principally through my new monograph. (Send this discount voucher to your university librarian –the book is a must for all University film studies sections!) The publishers, Edinburgh University Press, have graciously agreed for me to make small sections of the book available for free download, including the Preface, which gives a more thorough outline of the project of the book. I have also created a Tumblr, which will provide an ongoing and different kind of snapshot (or series of snapshots) of the book’s project.

Summing up a varied device

The first two quotations at the top of this post neatly summarise the place of direct address within popular discourses on film and within film studies. As Ashley Clark, in a Guardian Clip Joint suggests, looking at the audience is not something film characters are supposed to do. So-called ‘direct address’ has, in the words of the great André Bazin, been condemned by ‘all of cinema’s rulebooks’ for a very long time. As early as 1910, another journalist was writing that if the performer looks at the camera, ‘immediately, the sense of reality is destroyed and the hypnotic illusion that has taken possession of the spectator’s mind, holding him by the power of visual suggestion, is gone’ (Frank Woods quoted by Gunning 1991: 262). According to this view, involvement in the fiction is dependent on us not becoming too aware of the film as an artificial dramatic construct. And, in VF Perkins terms, film fictional worlds are generally constituted by characters for whom the camera simply does not exist; their situation contrasts with that of the actors, whose ‘playing most often creates the camera’s absence’ (Perkins 2005: 24; while this is the ‘usual’ state of things, Perkins actually goes on to suggest how direct address may enrich rather than destroy a fictional world.) Since the development of film studies as an academic discipline, direct address has remained much under-examined and under-theorised. Where direct address has been discussed, it is generally conceptualised in relation to avant-garde and oppositional approaches to film form and discussed in terms of a (often misunderstood, I would contend) notion of the ‘Brechtian’. In reality, it appears in far more kinds of films than is generally assumed and is certainly not incompatible with absorption into the filmed fiction. It is not the place of/there is not the space in a blog to repeat the work of a book, so here I shall limit myself to a series of somewhat random notes about the device and look at some examples.

In the book, I tentatively suggest that direct address most commonly marks seven key things within fiction films/has seven primary functions. (These summations are tentative because, I would contend, that the complexity of the device requires the kind of close analysis of individual case studies pursued at length in Breaking the Fourth Wall.) Intimacy, Agency, Superior epistemic position within the fictional world, Honesty, Instantiation, Alienation and (sometimes) Stillness. I shall say a little something of all of these before going on to examine some individual examples.

Intimacy.

This almost speaks for itself for to have a character in a film address the absent film spectator directly is clearly a very particular gesture towards intimacy. Intimacy can be threatening (see further Funny Games [1997 & 2007], which is discussed in this sample section of the book), but direct address functions more commonly in comedy and musical-comedy as a facet of the performers’ in those genres particularly intimate appeal to their audiences. However, in some exceptional cases, such as Make Way for Tomorrow [1937], which is also examined briefly in the book, direct address might be used to suggest we are ‘intruding’ as spectators – it is a marker, therefore, in this unusual case, of too much intimacy.

Agency.

Generally speaking, direct address will be the province of a single character and that character is often the protagonist or the principal agent of the narrative; in some cases, they might be called the narrator. (See further Alfie [1966 & 2004], High Fidelity [2000], many of Woody Allen’s films.) Wayne’s World [1992] is one of the only exceptions to this rule I can think of in that it has two lead characters who address the audience. Elsewhere, Groucho is the only Marx to look at us and, while Ollie often performs direct address, Stan is much less often aware of our presence – though when he cries and scratches his hair in that famous gesture, he may look towards us. Direct address has almost become a cliché of the horror ending (more on endings below) and its use in the final moments of both The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and The Omen (1976) underline the device’s particular claims to agency – what more powerful agent is there than the Devil? (Well, God of course! Suggestions of examples of God performing direct address on film will be gratefully received).

Superior epistemic position within the fictional world.

Put more simply this means that characters who address the audience directly generally ‘know’ more than other characters; they generally hold a privileged position within the narrative and may gain access to truths unavailable to others – this clearly links with the above examples of agency (to know is to be able to act). One of my major claims in Breaking the Fourth Wall is that direct address is a particularly rich metaphor for expressing a character’s realisation and coming-to-consciousness – therefore, as opposed to being a device that disrupts and destroys involvement with the fiction, it may enrich the fiction and truths that are the province of within that fiction.

Honesty.

This needs clarification because direct address often expresses a character’s claims to honesty but, in actual fact, the character might be deluded, delusional or otherwise hampered by the failures of insight. (See Fight Club [1999], where the narrator – played by Edward Norton – talks to us about film projection and splicing porn into films while his alter-ego in the background – Brad Pitt – avoids addressing us directly. Is direct address then a realisation emerging from the ego rather than from the Id (or Id masquerading as a super-ego)?!?). In High Fidelity, a film examined at length in Breaking the Fourth Wall, direct address is central to the confessional nature of the narrative and the narrator-protagonist’s claims to be bearing his soul. However, direct address, which as a physical gesture and as a feature of a range of films, generally represents clarity of vision/coming-to-realisation, is here used ironically as the narrator is characterised by immaturity and myopia until the character achieves enlightenment in the film’s final moments. Direct address might be, rather, a marker primarily of ingenuousness.

Instantiation.

This is a word but not one generally applied in the sense I mean it – direct address conveys present-ness and immediacy within the context of the medium of ‘presence-absence’ that (supposedly) is cinema; it is ‘instantiating’ more often than it is ‘distanciating’ (in what is thought of – often mistakenly – in its ‘Brecthian’ sense, more of which below).

Alienation (if that term is reconsidered).

Direct address may be distancing but film studies has generally over-estimated the extent to which it is ‘alienating’ in the Brechtian sense. Crucially, moreover, many film scholars seem to me to have generally misunderstood what Brecht stood for in the first place and taken his critique of traditional realist methods of characterisation for hostility to characterisation in toto.

(Sometimes) stillness.

This is the most tentative of my tentative summations. I would suggest that eye contact performed with the camera, even when performed in the midst of more frantic actions or intense emotions, can still have a certain stillness to it. For example, direct address in the final moments of Fellini’s Le Notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria [1957] (one of the major case studies in Breaking the Fourth Wall and the richest, most complicated instance of the device I have come across) has, I suggest, the feeling of a ‘sigh’ or a ‘gentle intake of breath’, acting as punctuation to a climax of overwhelming emotionality. More broadly, direct address may occur as a narrative pause, a moment of reflection that arrests or stands apart from the forward motion of the narrative. Linked to this is the fact that, at least since the rise of European art cinema in the 1950s and 60s, direct address features more often at the end of films than at any other point Most famously, Les 400 coups/The 400 Blows [1959] ends with a look at – or almost at – the camera, though I would suggest that the freeze-frame and process zoom mean it is less direct address – appearing to originate with the character – than it is an overt authorial intervention/move. The use of direct address at the end of films is often a marker of an ‘art film’ (or a not-quite-art film) or ‘independent’ film’s aspirations towards contemplativeness and aim to have its spectators leave the cinema reflecting more deeply on the fate of its characters. (See also, for example, This is England [2006], which clearly refers to Les 400 coups.) I shall talk more about some examples of endings (not covered in the book) below.

Guardian Clip Joint

Every week the Guardian website compiles a series of film clips organised around a particular theme. Late last year, after Breaking the Fourth Wall had been submitted to the publishers, one such ‘Clip Joint’ appeared with that very title. I’ll sketch some analysis of the examples there compiled by Ashley Clark.

This edition of Clip Joint is headed by an image from The Arbor (2010), a quite unique documentary on which Ameenah Ayub and Scott Bassett, alumni of Reading’s BA in Film and Theatre worked – the film’s relationship to verbatim theatre links it directly to the cross-disciplinary work of this department. The ontological complexities of The Arbor would make it very challenging to talk about here. The film has actors mouth to camera the pre-recorded words spoken by real people. (One of my colleagues humorously described it as ‘A human Creature Comforts but with more unrelenting misery!)’ The actors therefore might be said to look at the camera in character. However, their words are another person’s that were recorded as this other person spoke to yet another person in interview. Therefore who is doing the addressing? And to whom?! I would have to leave it to others or to another time to consider this text further.

Clark’s first moving image example is one I have mentioned briefly above, and one I have already suggested is not an example of direct address: the famous ending of Les 400 coups. I don’t wish to labour this point at great length except to say that the ending’s use of the freeze frame seems to capture Antoine Doinel/Jean-Pierre Léaud as his gaze meets the camera rather than having the character look out at us. To point this out clarifies what I have found in the device (and certainly in the examples I favour in Breaking the Fourth Wall): that is that the character and/or actor is, in the moment of direct address, given a unique kind of space in which to escape the normal confines of film fictions (see ‘agency’). In Les 400 coups, in contrast, the final moment fixes Antoine (whether it fixes him in a moment of realisation of ‘the terror of growing up’, as Ashley Clark suggests, I don’t know). Readers of this blog might feel differently, but it is not my sense that Doinel looks at us (which is crucial to my definition of direct address); we may look into him but that is something else.

The Guardian Clip Joint’s second example is a classic example of how direct address might work in screen comedy.

Billy Ray/Murphy’s look at the camera is beautifully timed (it is a shame whoever uploaded the clip to YouTube disrupted this timing) and expresses his blank disdain for the way his less-than-benevolent benefactors in Trading Places are addressing him. The character’s look (because, importantly, it is not necessary to read this as Murphy ‘stepping outside’ his character in order to understand this gesture) seeks to join our recognition as viewers of the patronising tone of Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy’s characters with his own. The moment reminds me a little of what Andrew Klevan identifies in his wonderful reading of a moment of direct address in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert (1933) :

He [Ollie] looks towards us, now that he can no longer look to Stan, with the hope that we, at least (all of us, some of us, one of us), might recognise that his partner has let him down. His look is made more potent by the fact that he stares, not merely elsewhere, but as if into another world, out of his own (fictional) world, the one that includes Stan (2005: 31-32).

What the Trading Places’ look has in common with Ollie’s is that both express something like resignation and that the characters’ aloneness (Ollie has been let down by his friend, Billy Ray has to put up with these patronising a**holes) is marked by the gesturing towards a momentary communion with us.

Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), Clark’s third example, is certainly an example of a character who is both narrator and principle agent of his story. Ferris’s almost unique ability to ‘see’ us is a marker of a coolness that contrasts with the phonies (he is a pop, 80s version of Holden Caulfield) of the adult world and his up-tight sister (Jennifer Grey). His chief adversary, Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) does look at the camera in the film’s final, over-the-credits shot as he seems to recognise his abject defeat at Bueller’s hands. As an aside, Ferris’s affinity with the extra-diegetic extends to the film’s use of music – remember the film’s big ‘musical number’? Significantly, as Jeanie Bueller’s starts to ‘loosen up’, she too seems to become more ‘aware’ of the extra-diegetic soundtrack. The affinity between direct address and music is a recurring theme in Breaking the Fourth Wall.

Now, I would have to admit that the Do the Right Thing (1989; relevant part of clip from 1:50) does not fit with the principal biases of my account of direct address. I have favoured what one might call, crudely, humanist instances of the devices – examples of direct address that stress, primarily, its potential as an expression of a character’s individual human agency (even if that agency is as illusory as is the possibility that movie characters might actually look ‘at’ us). This is because, this best represents its use across cinema history and in a wide range of genres; supposedly ‘Brechtian’ uses of direct address have been far more written about. Do the Right Thing sits more closely to instances I would identify as ‘director’s address’, which use the device’s innate reflexivity as a gesture of authorial voice. Funny Gamesexamined here is axiomatic of this. (In Breaking the Fourth Wall, I also examine Godard’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle [1967], Godard being the director most associated with this ‘abject’  use of the device [Bonitzer 1977: 45-46]. Importantly, however, I find Godard’s attitudes to individual ‘agency’ as expressed via direct address infinitely more nuanced and little like Haneke’s.) The moment at which the figures in Do the Right Thing assault the camera with their racial slurs is one of that complexly didactic film’s most didactic moments. However, is it direct address? Though clearly they are not present to each other, their insults are matched so the Black man seems to insult the Italian and the Italian appears to insult the Black man in return. The Latino insults the Korean, while the White policeman seems to address the Latino. Finally, the Korean insults the Jewish policeman (I think). Nevertheless, the performing of these moments to the camera is designed clearly to confront the audience. Are the audience (the North American audience of 1989 at least) meant to recognise themselves in one of speeches (the racist epithets are pretty wide-ranging) and therefore feel themselves addressed/their own prejudices confronted? Either way the performances to camera is confrontational in a way that demands to be talked about in relation to breaking the fourth wall.

 

Finally, Clark includes a moment from Annie Hall (1977), another of the best known films where direct address is central (with Alfie and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Now, I am embarrassed to say that I find myself with little to say about this example, as well staged and as funny as it is. This ties to what I would suggest has dissuaded analysis of direct address within film studies: the knowing, deconstructive nature of direct address here seems to leave little space for the critic; the film can be taken to speak for its own analysis. Allen’s auto-critique and self-deprecation seems (to my aesthetic sensibilities at least) to dissuade analysis; he seems to have done it for us. (Clearly this is not the case but it would take more effort than I am prepared to muster here to pull against this impression.) In this regard, it is notable that as the character of Alvy Singer undergoes greater heartache and more knockbacks in the film, his direct address recedes; he loses the confidence to deconstruct his own self. The same thing happens in the depressed middle act of Alfie, where the cocky hero has his confidence shaken by illness (this happens in both the original 1966 version and the recent 2004 remake). This suggests a pattern for direct address films such as this – that is, that the device recedes as the narrating figure gets embroiled in the central dramatic conflicts and problems. (Finally, note how the ‘blowhard’, notably discusses Beckett and Fellini, two artists known for their direct address.)

The above begins to suggest problems with Clark’s summation that direct address is ‘the embrace of reality that occurs when characters acknowledge their own fakeness’. This does not seem to me to describe any of the clips he compiles on the Clip Joint. I believe all the characters remain characters even while they assume a position ambiguously inside and outside their fictional worlds. In the context, of comedy, which I suggest in Breaking the Fourth Wall has a very strong ‘documentary’ edge, Clark’s comment ring much truer. A good example of comedy direct address is in the Anchorman example included in the Clip Joint reader suggestions (at bottom of page) of examples of breaking the fourth wall – these reader suggestions actually represent a more representative sample than Clark’s and contain examples that are examined at length in the book!)

Endings

If direct address appears more often at the ends of films than at any other point this is partly because, as Gilberto Perez suggested to me, it is a gesture that takes us someway out of the fiction, which is clearly the function of (most) endings. I want to spend the remainder of this blog discussing two endings I saw recently (subsequent to the completion of the book) that will enable me to say some broader things about the particular force of direct address as a way to close a film and in order to better understand why some filmmakers might choose this option.

The first of these breaks one of the main parameters/rules I set out above – that is, it seems to be part of a ‘point-of-view figure’, a camera look that is not strictly speaking, direct address. However, this example usefully illustrates the considerable ambiguity of these distinctions and, in the first place, to stick rigidly to such distinctions runs contrary to the very nature of direct address, which is, after all, an impossible look that operates in an in-between space. I have not chosen the examples examined below because I think the films are particularly strong or even their use of direct address is particularly effective – indeed, in both cases, the use of direct address, to me, approaches cliché. (Though direct address might be much more widely present in films than is generally acknowledged – a major motivation for my writing about it – it remains too idiosyncratic a device to be considered clichéd.) The problems with the endings remain interesting.

Spoiler alert (we are discussing endings after all): We Are What We Are (2010) is a horror film revolving around a family living below the poverty line in a large Mexican city who subsist through murder and cannibalism. After the death of the father (Humberto Yáñez), the principle ‘hunter gatherer’, the family unit begins to degenerate (degenerate further!) and, by the film’s conclusion, all bar one have been killed by the police or vengeful prostitutes (street walkers have provided the main source of food for the family.) The one survivor is the daughter, Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) who ends the film having escaped from hospital.

The look at the camera at the end of this film is embedded in a point-of-view structure but its embedding is loose. Sabina is seen looking into the camera but in the subsequent shot the skinny man (an odd choice of meal for a cannibal it must be said) is only just looking up at her – thus shot 3 in the extract (the shot in which Sabina looks at the camera) cannot quite be seen as originating with the optical point of view of the skinny man. Though the look to camera has an alibi within the fictional world, it is as if we, the spectator, via the conduit of the skinny man, have been picked out as the next meal. The choice to add this loose point of view frame can be related to the film’s aspirations towards constructing a more ‘realist’ approach to the horror genre – the film is realist in its ‘gritty’ visuals but also in its focus on cannibalism as a seemingly logical consequence of extreme poverty and urban alienation. However, it remains a quasi-conventional horror movie ending in its use of direct address. I mentioned above The Devil’s Advocate and The Omen but another example that springs to mind is Eden Lake (2008), where the ‘monstrous chav’ Brett (Jack O’Connell) looks at us in the film’s final frames. Horror movies often want to ‘get in our heads’ and they therefore might use direct address in order to seek to implicate us/involve us in the film’s horrors and have us leave the cinema (or our sofa) remembering a villain who looked at us and seemed to threaten us in the end. The title itself and certainly its appearance at the end of We Are What We Are also makes it, for me, an example of direct address and underlines the film’s political aspirations. Indeed, the title, in adopting a first-person plural position (‘We are’ [Somos]) presupposes the existence of an audience – the ending (and the film more broadly) seems to say something like, ‘We are what we are… and you must face this’. It appears in conjunction with the crescendo of the score in an almost sloganistic, declamatory fashion, giving the sense of threat and warning.

Shifting genres (and national cinemas) completely, The Ides of March (2011) also ends with a moment of direct address, again embedded within a frame that grounds it semi-realistically. Direct address, here, felt to me totally inevitable and, indeed, my wife, sitting next to me on the sofa as we watched the film, said, ‘He’s going to look at the camera!’ as the moment unfolded (of course she has become cued to look out for such things!). This is a longer extract as the build up to the moment of audience address is longer.

The ending of The Ides of March sits in a long line of films in which, at the end, the character has achieved a hard-won wisdom or, at least, a greater degree of understanding. Bitter experience might lend the final performance of direct address a degree of cynicism. (For example, the end of This is England isn’t quite cynical but certainly marks the fact that the child protagonist is not as innocent as he was at the film’s outset.) This ‘wisdom’ is ambiguous in Clooney’s film because, without giving too much away or going into too much detail, the narrative concerns the compromising of political idealism; the lead character, played by Ryan Gosling, has done some unscrupulous things in order to achieve the position of chief campaign manager to presidential hopeful, Mike Morris (Clooney), a position he assumes in this final scene. Again, context might make one question whether we are meant to take Stephen Meyers look to the camera to be one at the audience. As soon as the ear piece is put in, we hear the feed we assume Meyers is listening to of the TV newscast that he is about to be interviewed for. An interviewer asks him a question and he then looks at the camera. Is his look meant, therefore, to be one at the diegetic camera? The one filming the interview for the news show that is within the fiction? Again, here we see a kind of ‘realistic’ framework for direct address. (Many other films, it should be stressed, don’t bother with such alibis). However, for me, context once more gives the character’s gesture the force of direct address. The proximity of the camera through which the spectator of The Ides of March is viewing Stephen Meyers/Ryan Gosling (the camera tracks in on him) is in no way equivalent to the position the diegetic TV camera filming the character would occupy – indeed, we see the diegetic TV camera and it is fixed on a tripod. Moreover, the pacing of the look arrests it from the diegetic setting – we linger for approximately 4 seconds on Meyers look into the camera after he has been asked the question by the TV reporter; the character may be looking inside himself to consider his conscience but he is too composed to freeze like this on live television. Above all, the rhetoric of the ending is felt most forcefully in the ironic juxtaposition of Mike Morris’s words, ‘Dignity matters! Integrity matters!’, with the move in on Meyers’ face – dignity and, especially, integrity. have been sacrificed to get this character to this point. As discussed in Breaking the Fourth Wall, direct address is often a marker of film irony and this, again, grounds the ending of The Ides of March as direct address. Finally, I want to say something of the way direct address contributes to the final shot’s particular focalisation on the character. It is focalisation in two senses: the final shot stresses his point of view (a camera’s move in on a face can achieve this but, crucially, the soundtrack asks us to share his point of audition more than his point of view); the camera moving in on him also has the feeling of putting him under the microscope, subjecting the character to our intense scrutiny, scrutiny to which he then finally seems to respond. Ultimately, this ending not so different from the horror ending(s) discussed above. Ides of March is an indictment of the American political system and the final look at the camera is a gesture which, superficially at least, seeks to remind us of our implication in this bankrupt culture.

And on that note, I turn to the camera, nod towards the audience and fade to black.

Bibliography

Bazin, André (1999), Qu’est-ce que le cinéma (onzième edition), Paris: Les Éditions du cerf.

Bonitzer, Pascal (1977), ‘Les deux regards’, Cahiers du cinéma, 275, 40-46.

Gunning, Tom (1991), D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: the Early Years at Biograph, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Perkins, V. F. (2005), ‘Where is the world? The horizon of events in movie fiction’, in John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds), Style and Meaning: Studies in the detailed analysis of film, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 16-41.

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